Monday, September 1, 2014

Outside the Government: Sky

It’s October 3rd, 2011. Sak Noel is at number one with “Loca People,” with One Direction, Goo Goo Dolls, and Dappy also charting. There is presumably some reason why the Goo Goo Dolls are charting with “Iris,” a years old song at this point, but I certainly don’t know it off the top of my head. In news, really basically nothing has happened in the two days that have passed since The Wedding of River Song. There’s a factory fire in Surrey, and Amanda Knox’s conviction is overturned. And the day the second episode of this airs, there’s a car bombing in Mogadishu. 

While on television, The Sarah Jane Adventures returns with Sky. There is, of course, something of an dilemma here in terms of how to approach this final season of The Sarah Jane Adventures. On the one hand, they are a clear memorial to Lis Sladen - a run of episodes that can only be taken in the context of her death. On the other, they were never meant to be this. They’re just the first half of Season Five, shot alongside Season Four in the expectation that everyone would be back in a few months to finish the run. It’s just that the second half never got made because Lis Sladen died of cancer not long after these filmed. This paradox hangs over the entire season in a way that can’t be ignored.

It’s something we’ve talked about before, but it’s perhaps worth stressing once more how much of a blow Sladen’s death was. For a variety of reasons. The fact that it came so close after Nicholas Courtney’s was one. I mean, fandom always takes deaths of major players in Doctor Who kind of hard. On aggregate, we take actors the worst, and fair enough, because far more people know who Lis Sladen and Nicholas Courtney are than know who Verity Lambert and Barry Letts are. But Sladen and Courtney were big even by the standards of actors. They were people who figured generationally in people’s lives. Children who grew up watching Sarah Jane and the Brigadier watched Sarah Jane and the Brigadier with their children. Parents who grew up watching them watched them with their grandchildren. That hurts in its own unique ways.

But Courtney was 81, mostly retired, and had been in ill health, while Sladen was 65 and still a television star. For those who paid attention there was a sense something might be wrong, but for the most part it felt as though one minute she was on BBC One watching David Tennant regenerate, the next she was dead. I mean, it was the first time I decided to post something other than an actual TARDIS Eruditorum post on the blog, because it hit so hard that I felt like I just had to say something about it, because it was one of those days where writing was how I grieved. I remember a friend messaging me on Facebook just saying “Oh No. :(.” And I knew it was probably Doctor Who from what friend it was, so I went to Doctor Who News, and I remember gasping. I was in my parents’ living room, and I told them, and my father, who doesn’t say a lot since his stroke, just let out a long, sad “oh,” because he’s learned to over-articulate tone and emphasis to communicate when the aphasia robs him of the words he wants. 

And she was a star of a children’s show, so on top of that there was the whole very real mess of explaining to children that there were never going to be any more episodes of their favorite television show because the actress who played their favorite character was dead. Which is not easy, both in the sense of how to do it and in the sense of the emotional drain that telling awful things to people you love is. In that regard, the final three stories were a really big deal. It was Doctor Who’s version of watching Heath Ledger play the Joker, only instead of the unsettling spectacle of a performance so intense it feels like it contributed to the actor’s death you get a quiet farewell to an entertainer beloved by millions across generations. 

Given all of this, Sky hits with a weird sort of perversity, because it wasn’t written to engage with any of that. It was written to deal with the fact that Tommy Knight was continuing to reduce his involvement with the series to focus on school, thus leaving a hole in the cast, both in terms of having someone to deliver certain types of exposition and in terms of having someone to fill the role of Sarah Jane’s child, since her status as a parent had become an important aspect of her character in the series, and indeed, is the major difference between her in this series and her in 1970s Doctor Who. And so it introduced a new major character, Sky Smith, who was slightly younger than Rani, Clyde, and Luke, but who had the same basic origin as Luke, in that she was created by aliens for a nefarious scheme and then ended up in Sarah Jane’s care. 

Which is to say that Sky is very much concerned with the future of The Sarah Jane Adventures, but aired in a context where the focus was overwhelmingly on the fact that said future was never going to be realized. And that hangs over the episode, in the same way that the knowledge of why Hartnell is only on the TV screen and is talking so strangely hangs over The Three Doctors. This overwhelms almost everything about the story, in fact. 

Nevertheless, it’s worth making some observations about the lost future it indicates. For one thing, Sky manages something impressive, which is to not immediately be the most punchable character imaginable. She’s impish and funny in the way that “the younger sidekick” role, structurally, is more or less obliged to be, but clearly everybody made a conscious decision to avoid playing it too excessively. There are the expected jokes about things she doesn’t understand, but they’re underplayed. The jokes aren’t “ha ha, look at the comical situation that emerged from the mutual misunderstanding,” which tended to be how early Luke was played, but instead quieter jokes based on incongruity - Sky frequently understands a big and complicated thing, only to shortly thereafter express bewilderment over a small and seemingly obvious thing. They work pretty well, and help smooth what could have been a rough transition. It’s too early to tell based on the five episodes in which Sinead Michael appears, but she could well have worked out to be a wonderful, classic character.  It’s really top notch stuff for children’s television, and is the sort of thing that makes you wish this show could run forever. 

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Into the Dalek Review

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There is a certain perspective from which, going in, this looked like the most cynical thing imaginable. Since every Doctor requires a Dalek story, they get it out of the way up front, treating it as something to get over with instead of something to anticipate. Accordingly, you take the Daleks and an unapologetically high concept premise and basically give Capaldi a second episode of having lots of other stuff going on to cover as he beds into the role. And with Gatiss having finally cracked the problem of how to pander to the sorts of fans who want a return to the classic series without losing the other 100% of the audience last season with Cold War, an unabashedly straightforward "just like you imagine Doctor Who being" episode becomes the order of the day. Fair enough, but equally, the sort of episode that a segment of fandom (by which I really just mean myself) looks at and (along with next week) goes "well, at least there's a proper Moffat episode coming on the 13th."

(Mind you, there's a logic to it. Matt Smith got the same basic treatment with River Song and the Weeping Angels in his first two episodes. This time they actually shot Capaldi's first two episodes first, so they put the Paternoster Gang and the Daleks in to smooth out the transition. And the series can't serve up my kind of episode every week because, again, the other 100% of the audience would rightly object.)

So with the caveat that this is not an episode after my own heart and that I went in with fairly minimal expectations, I thought this was quite good. I seem to not be alone - comments so far on the post are broadly positive, Twitter's pretty enthusiastic, and the GallifreyBase poll has it running slightly better than Deep Breath was. (72.7% in the 8-10 range, but skewed higher in the range) I suspect that a year's hindsight will help Deep Breath and hinder this a little, but we're all about the now here, and this seems, in the immediate aftermath of broadcast, to have scratched the itch it aimed for.

The script, obviously, is primarily bibs and bobs of other Dalek stories, most obviously the ones by Rob Shearman. But this is not entirely unsurprising. Phil Ford's an odd writer - his best script prior to this was, of course, the one Russell T Davies rewrote entirely. His next best was an episode of Torchwood. And then there's a succession of Sarah Jane Adventures that range from the quite good (The Lost Boy, Prisoner of the Judoon) to the bizarrely lightweight and disposable (Eye of the Gorgon, The Eternity Trap). The late addition of a cowriting credit for Moffat suggests that in this case he was commissioned as a matter of production expediency - that he was there, in effect, to provide the broad shape of a script for Moffat to tinker with. I recognize that this sounds rather critical and even dismissive, but I honestly don't mean it to be. Writing to be rewritten is a skillset in itself, requiring a more "jack of all trades" sort of approach. Rewriting someone with too distinctive a style leads to, well, Planet of the Dead. (Which is to say, I really hope that Roberts's script coming up in the season is very minimally rewritten. That's the one story where "and Steven Moffat" is not entirely reassuring.)

And this is, to be honest, the sort of story that is made to be a multiply-authored script, because its job really is to hit a series of set pieces in order and in a way that feels unified. So yes, there are large swaths of Shearman here, but any suggestion that this is a remake of Dalek is deeply misguided. Dalek, like any Shearman script, is a theater piece. Into the Dalek is an action movie. In Dalek, the "you would make a good Dalek" line is part of an extended exploration of the Doctor's psyche intended to show him as, in his own way, a monstrous figure. In Into the Dalek, it's one last grim little kicker - the line that sends the Doctor grumping away with the knowledge that he's only had a partial victory. There's none of the sense of ambition in the line - instead it works as the quote it is - a reminder of the by-now longstanding tradition of the Daleks twisted understanding of the Doctor. (Also, a hat tip to dm in the comments, who points out a marvelous reading of the "you are a good Dalek" line in which the Dalek is using the term exactly as the Doctor is - that is, that the Dalek is acknowledging the Doctor as a Dalek who is morally good.)

But the ways in which the big thematic resonances are superficial and based in effect on allusions to past episodes does make the whole thing a bit muted. The entire "am I a good man" bit feels unearned, with the story not having done much of anything to justify the Doctor asking the question in the first place, and while Clara's "you try to be" bit at the end is marvelous, it's still a lovely resolution to a plot that never quite came together.

More interesting is the theme of soldiers, and, of course, Danny Pink. The Doctor's "rule against soldiers" is clearly complex and nuanced, as suggested by the fabulous scene of Gretchen's sacrifice (rewatch it and look at everything Capaldi does once the Doctor realizes what Gretchen is going to do). His objection manifestly isn't to their killing, but a more subtle one having to do with the nature of military authority. "Soldiers take orders."

But in this case the script is just a starting point. In reality, this is a story about the visuals. Ben Wheatley came under some criticism for the action sequences in Deep Breath, which were, admittedly, not its strongest point. But here, given the opportunity to do Dalek action sequences, he excels. At the heart of it is the decision to work with model shots and actual props, minimizing the CGI for the actual Dalek fight. So we get lots of fire and viscera, and it's all terribly, terribly gorgeous, to the point where it largely masks the fact that the climax otherwise consists of Clara crawling around hitting buttons and the Doctor wrestling with what is fairly obviously a bit of ductwork. (Though here Peter Capaldi properly earns his Doctor Who wings, managing to make a scene dramatic despite having no co-stars on the set with him and nothing to act with other than the aforementioned duct. In every Doctor's tenure there's a scene where he realizes what the job in fact entails, and this is his.) Wheatley makes it feel as fresh and energetic as Camfield felt in the 1960s. (Indeed, the phenomenal Covent Garden battle in Web of Fear is probably the nearest touchstone in the series' history. Certainly the Daleks themselves have never actually looked this good.

Much of this comes, one suspects, from hiring an experienced and respected film director with a childhood love of Doctor Who and turning him loose on a script that left him with a big Dalek battle to basically fill in as he pleased. The result is something that's clearly making an effort to feel like the classic series always wanted to feel. The obvious touchstone is Resurrection of the Daleks, which can be looked at as a story that existed to try to do these action sequences and just couldn't. But in many ways I'd go back to things like the elaborate toy-based action sequence at the end of Evil of the Daleks (however that actually looked in practice), the devastation of the Mechanoid city in The Chase, or any number of sequences in the three Pertwee Dalek stories.

Also deserving of effusive praise is the set design for the Dalek interior, which took something that could easily have been silly and made it satisfyingly unsettling. The long, distorted shot of entering the eyestalk and the play of light builds up expectations, and the resulting set delivers marvelously. The shot of everybody looking up towards the Dalek brain after the Dalek has been repaired is wonderful, giving a sense of the internal shape of the Dalek. The Dalek aesthetic, such as it is, is maintained throughout, in a really satisfying way (which really just means lots of Dalek bumps). But equally, the interior of the Dalek is worn and ugly, in a way that makes an interesting contrast to the excessively pristine Dalek ship.

So, a story that is not necessarily long on ambition, but that takes care to get what it does right. Capaldi gets another episode to bed in, and is brilliant more often than not, although there are a handful of moments where I'm not entirely persuaded by his choices, most notably in the final confrontation with the Dalek mutant itself, but there's far more where he's electric. The first scene inside the TARDIS, rescuing Journey, is brilliant, as is his slightly distracted, mournful final scene with Clara. For the obligatory Dalek story, a slot that has, let's be honest, been a problem slot for the series since about 1965, this is far, far better than we had any right to expect. It's almost enough to give one hope that Gatiss can be satisfying.

Miscellaneous notes:

  • Is Ben Crompton the most criminally under-utilized actor Doctor Who has ever had? He's a phenomenal character actor, and I'm pretty sure he gets exactly five lines plus a "scream like you're being disintegrated by Dalek antibodies." 
  • Still nothing to speculate on with regards to Missy, really.
  • I've decided I like the new credits sequence. The clangy bits at the beginning resolving into something more traditionally sci-fi works for me - it's almost like a theremin. And I'm glad to see Gold's scoring moving a bit more towards synths for this season. I think it's the right shift in the music, keeping it fresh and very 2014. 
  • To talk about Danny Pink agin, it's awfully early to say a lot about him, but it really is promising at the start. He's got good comic timing and can keep his end of a scene full of banter, which is at least a good baseline for a Doctor Who companion. I do hope they find an excuse to give William Russell a cameo soon, though, if only to get the sense of a modern day Ian to be even stronger. 
  • Letter grades may be a no, but I'll at least rank the episodes. So, thus far:
  1. Deep Breath
  2. Into the Dalek.

Friday, August 29, 2014

By His Torment, The World Was Redeemed (The Last War in Albion Part 59: Down Among the Dead Men, Pogo)

This is the ninth of twenty-two parts of Chapter Eight of The Last War in Albion, focusing on Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing. An omnibus of all twenty-two parts can be purchased at Smashwords. If you purchased serialization via the Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter messages for a free download code.

The stories discussed in this chapter are currently available in six volumes. The first volume is available in the US here, and the UK here. The second is available in the US here and the UK here. Finding volume 3-6 are, for now, left as an exercise for the reader, although I will update these links as the narrative gets to those issues.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: Alan Moore's third arc on Swamp Thing featured a tremendously disturbing scene in which it is revealed that Abby has been being raped by her dead uncle who has taken over her husband's body. The scene failed to pass muster with the Comic Code Authority, the industry's self-appointed censor, leading DC to take the momentous decision to simply publish Swamp Thing without Code approval.

"With each terrible death and resurrection, Crafty knew that by his torment, the world was redeemed. It seemed there was nothing that could truly kill him, and while he lived there still remained the hope that one day he might return and on that day overthrow the tyrant God and build a better world." - Grant Morrison, Animal Man #5

Figure 435: Swamp Thing and Arcane
meet again in hell. (Written by Alan
Moore, art by Steve Bissette and John
Totleben, from Swamp Thing Annual #2,
After its initial splash of controversy the Arcane trilogy resolved more or less predictably, albeit with the substantial wrinkle of Arcane killing Abby. Ultimately Matt Cable wrests control of his body back and casts Arcane back down to hell before using the last of his lingering superpowers to bring Abby back from the dead. Unfortunately, Matt is only able to revive her body, leaving Swamp Thing to journey into the afterlife to rescue her soul from hell, where Arcane cast it down. This journey is depicted in Swamp Thing Annual #2, a forty-page saga called “Down Among the Dead Men.” Moore has described the story as an attempt to provide “a preliminary map - a rough map - of the DC supernatural territories,” which is as good a description as any for a spiritual journey into the DC Universe versions of heaven and hell. Structurally speaking, the story is intensely episodic - Swamp Thing allows his consciousness to sink into the Earth, and then further into the realms of death. There he proceeds to meet a series of minor supernatural characters from DC history alongside a series of short encounters with various entities in the realms he explores. The two most notable of these are a scene where he meets Alec Holland in heaven, finally getting to exchange words with the man he thought he was, and a scene in which he meets Arcane, who is being tortured by vast numbers of insect eggs hatching inside his body. As Swamp Thing walks on, Arcane begs him, “huh-how many years have I buh-been here?” and Swamp Thing turns, a beautifully cruel smile on his face, and answers simply, “since yesterday.”

Figure 436: A characteristically dynamic
page layout from Neal Adams's early career
work on Deadman. (Written by Carmine
Infantino and Jack Miller, from Strange
 #207, 1967)
These short scenes pack a reasonable emotional punch, but in many ways it is the larger canvas that is interesting in “Down Among the Dead Men,” and particularly the set of characters Moore selects to serve as Swamp Thing’s guides, which included a return of Etrigan alongside three other characters from DC’s long history. First among them is Deadman, a character created in the late 1960s by Arnold Drake and Carmine Infantino for Strange Adventures, a long-running title that, over the years, wandered around through many premises and presentations but was, in the late sixties, a supernatural fantasy book. Deadman was the circus name of Boston Brand, a trapeze artist murdered during a performance, but who was allowed to remain as a ghost who could possess the bodies of people by a goddess named Rama Kushna (a bastardization of the real gods Rama and Krishna) so he could hunt his killer. In many ways Deadman is most notable for providing the first ongoing work for Neal Adams, who would go on to become the iconic comics artist of the 1970s for his dramatic page compositions, often featuring pages of angled, non-rectangular panels drawn from low-to-the-ground perspectives that, combined with a style honed by years working on photorealistic drama strips syndicated to newspapers, gave his characters a staggering, larger than life presence. Deadman himself is a ridiculous character, not least due to his appearance as a gaunt, white corpse in a circus outfit, who suffered from the same problem Moore identified in Swamp Thing whereby the seeming premise of the series (in this case Deadman’s quest to find his killer) could never be resolved or else
the series would end (since Deadman’s unlife explicitly lasts until he finds his murderer). But as with the
Figure 437: The first appearance of the
Phantom Stranger.
original run of Wein/Wrightson Swamp Thing tales, there is much to like in the original run of stories.

The second character Moore dusts off is a rather stranger one: John Broome and Carmine Infantino’s The Phantom Stranger, who first appeared in a six-issue series bearing his name in 1952, where he appeared in a variety of short stories all of which had basically the same plot. Initially some apparently supernatural event would occur, bringing misfortune to people. At a moment of crisis, the Phantom Stranger appears out of nowhere, resolves the situation, generally revealing it to have a mundane explanation. After a sixteen year gap, he appeared again in an issue of Showcase, then got a second series in which he was reworked as an actually supernatural character. Through all of this, the Stranger pointedly never received anything like an origin story or explanation of where he came from, a conceit that gave him a certain appeal. 

Figure 438: In one four possible origin stories, the angel
that became the Phantom Stranger has his wings torn
off. (Written by Alan Moore, art by Joe Orlando, from
Secret Origins #10, 1986)
Moore, when writing the character, tended to imply that he had some Biblical origin, and indeed in 1987 wrote one of four possible origin stories for the character in Secret Origins #10, alongside Dan Mishkin, Paul Levitz, and Mike Barr. Moore’s story is structured as two parallel stories, told on alternating pages, that cover essentially the same ground on different scales. The first is the story of a member of New York’s red-beret wearing Subway Angels, a volunteer organization founded in 1979 to patrol the increasingly dangerous New York Subway, while the second is a set around the fall of Lucifer. In both, the protagonist is torn between two rival factions, fails to commit to either, and is brutally rejected by both as a result. The stories converge in the final two pages as the Phantom Stranger appears to him after he has been beaten and helps him up, giving a solemn speech about how, “lonely inside our separate skins, we cannot know each other’s pain and must bear our own in solitude. For my part,” he explains, “I have found that walking sooths it; and that, given luck, we find one to walk beside us… at least for a little way.” 

Figure 439: The staggering scale of
the Spectre is revealed to Swamp
Thing and the Phantom Stranger
(Written by Alan Moore, art by Steve
Bissette and John Totleben, from
Swamp Thing Annual #2, 1984)
Finally, Moore introduces the Spectre, a Golden Age hero who served as God’s vengeance, best known for a run of ten issues in the mid-70s written by Joe Orlando and Michael Fleisher, with art by Jim Aparo, which vented Orlando’s frustrations and anxieties after being mugged, with the Spectre meting out gruesome punishments to criminals that skirted the edge of what was permissible under the Comic Code of the time. It is not that any of these characters are particularly obscure, although none had been in particularly active use prior to “Down Among the Dead Men,” with the Phantom Stranger, who had previously had a backing feature in Saga of the Swamp Thing during Pasko’s run, being the closest thing to a regularly appearing character. What the characters were, however, were ones who (along with Swamp Thing himself) would have featured in the comics of Moore’s childhood and adolescence. All of the characters had prominent runs in the late 60s/early 70s that Moore would have been the perfect age for, and that stood out distinctively in the era. They are certainly not the only characters Moore loved, but they nevertheless have ties to a common moment that Moore was both celebrating and updating for the present day. Which was in many ways the point of the exercise. “Down Among the Dead Men” is in no way a complete collection of DC’s mystical and supernatural characters, but it is a thorough enough one, and Moore, by lashing them together into a single story, makes a tacit demonstration that his by now clearly successful approach to writing Swamp Thing was not some fluke, but rather a viable approach to a particular sort of comic in general. And it is telling that “Down Among the Dead Men” roughly coincided with the point where Moore began to get other work at DC. 

With “Down Among the Dead Men” both being an oversized story and one published as an Annual, meaning that it came out the same month as Swamp Thing #32, another fill-in issue was needed to keep the book on schedule. Having given Shawn McManus a rather frustratingly ill-suited story in “The Burial,” Moore was eager to give him something more immediately suited to his cartoonish style, and so penned a bespoke story called “Pog” that serves as one of the oddest installments of Moore’s run. As Moore explains it, the idea came to him while he was brainstorming “characters that live in swamps - and I just put Pogo.”

Figure 440: Although best known as a
newspaper strip, Pogo made his first
appearance in Dell's Animal Comics #1.
Pogo was a newspaper strip written and drawn by Walt Kelly, featuring the characters of Pogo the Possum and Albert the Alligator, initially created in 1941 for Dell Comics’ Animal Comics, but made more famous as an editorial page comic in the New York Star and, starting in 1949, as a nationally syndicated comic. The strip is in the grand tradition of American “funny animal” comics and cartoons that accompanied and, gradually, replaced minstrelsy’s role in American comedy. Pogo is an everyman sort of possum living in the Okefenokee Swamp on the Georgia/Florida border along with a menagerie of absurd friends and companions, of which Albert is the most prominent. The comic’s strengths are severalfold. For one, Kelly is a gifted cartoonist whose figures are reliably both expressive and ridiculous. For another, Kelly’s command of language was exquisite in a way few, if any of his contemporaries (or indeed imitators) could match. His characters speak in an invented vernacular long on misspellings and malapropisms, proclaiming things like, “us must git our e-quipments quipped up afore the expedition pedooshes,” and an annual tradition of fractured Christmas carols, the most famous of which began, “Deck us all with Boston Charlie / Walla Walla, Wash., an’ Kalamazoo! / Nora’s freezing on the trolly / Swaller dollar cauliflower alley-garoo!” 

Figure 441: Simple J Malarkey, a parody of Joseph
McCarthy, in a 1953 Pogo strip by Walt Kelly.
Kelly turned these strengths to effective satire, skewering the establishment of American politics in most every direction, most famously in his character “Simple J. Malarkey,” a caricature of anti-Communist crusader Senator Joseph McCarthy. When, in a typically Kellyesque series of events, The Providence Bulletin declared that it would drop the strip if Malarkey appeared again, Kelly responded by simply having the character appear with a paper bag over his head. This was only the most famous of many times Kelly found himself in trouble with the papers distributing his strip, and eventually he settled on the tactic of creating a second set of strips whenever he was doing something controversial. These strips would feature many of the same political points, but in a toned down and subtler manner often featuring cute rabbits as the characters. Kelly, for his part, was open about the practice, making it clear that if readers saw Pogo strips featuring cute bunnies then their newspapers were engaging in censorship.

Figure 442: Arguably the most famous Pogo strip
was Kelly's poster for the 1971 Earth Day.
But for all that Pogo was overtly and satirically political, it was also appreciably broad in its targets. Kelly liked to claim that he was opposed to “the extreme Right, the extreme Left, and the extreme Middle,” and Kelly’s satire, even when it took aim at specific figures, tended to mainly suggest that everyone was in the same absurd and slowly sinking ship, and that the problem with the world was the people in it. This is best exemplified by the most famous quote to come out of the comic, the punchline to a poster Kelly, a committed environmentalist, created for one of the earliest celebrations of Earth Day. The strip features Pogo and another character walking across the swamp, then pulls back to show the mass of litter and junk that they’ve been walking across, as Pogo glumly comments that “we have met the enemy, and he is us.” 

Figure 443: Pog explains his history to Swamp
Thing by drawing pictures on the ground. (Written
by Alan Moore, art by Shawn McManus, from Swamp
 #32, 1984)
Moore’s Pogo homage, fittingly, returns to the ecological themes that characterized his earliest issues of Swamp Thing, and that would come to characterize his best work on the title. The story features a ship of aliens drawn by McManus in a cartoonish and Kelly-esque style, and given a wordplay heavy way of speaking that similarly evokes Kelly’s work. “Don’t be unmembered to tell the Tadling see if old Strigiforme is fetchable nowabouts,” Pog, the leader of the aliens says at one point, before breaking off to marvel at the swamp in which they have landed, saying, “A new Lady! A new Lady as envirginomental as the old one!” Eventually the aliens encounter Swamp Thing (who, in this issue, speaks only in an incomprehensible string of symbols), and explain to him their origin, telling him how on their planet (which they call the Lady) “there was one solitribal breed of misanthropomorphs who refused to convivicate with elsefolk. They constructed their own uncivilization, and exclucified anykind else from joining it. They were the loneliest animals of all. They took our lady away from us.” He goes on to explain the horrible things these animals did, running medical experiments and, worse, killing and eating the other creatures until Pog and his shipmates set forth in their ship Find-the-Lady to find a new Lady on which to live, which Pog believes that they have now done. 

In response, Swamp Thing sadly takes Pog to Baton Rouge to show him the nature of the planet on which they have landed - a silent sequence of humans cooking and eating meat, which Pog stares at in dumbstruck horror before weeping and crying out that “they can’t own this Lady too! We were going to be happy here!” [continued]

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Comics Reviews (August 28th, 2014)

I liked doing these as a ranked list last time, so let's do it again.

All New X-Men #31

The start of a new Bendis storyline, with all the attendant faults such as the storyline not actually starting until the last panel. I'm excited for the storyline, though.

Guardians of the Galaxy #18

This one's tough for me, as it's the retconned ending to some Marvel cosmic story I never read from a few years ago. It holds together in its own right well enough, but is fundamentally a book answering questions I've never asked, and only vaguely knew were questions, which puts a cap on how much I can dig it.

Silver Surfer #5

Well, at least they sort out the odd cliffhanger from the previous issue quickly. There's an argument to be made that we've reached some sort of limit point here of how much plot you can get away with in a single issue. This is mental to the extreme, in the sort of way that when Grant Morrison does it, it gets accused of being self parody. What's strange, though, is that this is paired with a plot that's taken five issues to get to what's obviously the premise of the book, which is the Silver Surfer and Dawn traveling the cosmos. So we have a book that's weirdly balanced between a ridiculous excess of ideas and a slow burn. It's something I may eventually conclude is brilliant, but at the moment it's just sort of odd.

Original Sin #5.4 Thor & Loki: The Tenth Realm #4

Al Ewing continues to execute a perfectly competent and interesting Marvel Asgard story. Some great Loki in this issue, and it feels like it's building to an interesting new status quo for this corner of the Marvel line, although this is still very much a Marvel fan's comic.

Avengers #34

Whatever concerns I may have about Hickman's pacing, and they are many, I remain interested. There's a lovely, properly good Captain America scene here. The eight month jump forward seems like it's sure to screw some of Hickman's plot arcs, but I want to see where he's going with it. I remain mildly skeptical of Hickman as a creator (note that I did finally just drop Manhattan Projects), but I can see the appeal, and I hope this story works.

Cyclops #4

A character piece by Greg Rucka, and as good as you'd expect from that descriptor. Really a pity he could only find time for five issues of this. Rucka is always a treat.

The Massive #26

My irritation that this book has the white guy as its lead character and not the more interesting characters continues, as does my sense that a book that started from the premise it's setting up in its final arc instead of ending with it would have been a stronger one. Nevertheless, I really, really love what this book is doing right now. It's been an overly long ride, but I am on the whole glad to have taken it at the moment.

Saga #22 (Pick of the Week)

God's in heaven and all is right with the world. Vaughan has a really tough scene to sell here in the big confrontation between Marko and Alana, and he nails it, with a scene full of human frailty and people doing reasonable, understandable things with terrible consequences. It's all framed in a story full of momentum and a sense of growing crisis. Fiona Staples continues to be one of the best artists in comics. If you're not reading Saga, you really should be. Not every issue is the pick of the week, but no issue doesn't make a month's top ten.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Pop Between Realities, Home in Time for Tea 81 (My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic)

Jed writes My Little Po-Mo, the TARDIS Eruditorum of ponies.

In this scene, Clara is cleverly disguised as a pony named Rose.
Consider a fandom. A curious beast, an amorphous, shifting mass of people wrapped around a core of fiction. Despite the variation in cores and size, fandoms all look basically the same. The swarm of flesh devours the core over and over again, yet the core is unharmed. The beast excretes its assumptions and predictions by consensus, layering it around the core like an invert pearl, fanon-grit encrusting a glittering center. Fanficcers and shippers and “expanded universe” authors build their own structures, grit and crystal in varying amounts, arcing off the core. Sometimes these extend all the way out of the beast, where they draw in their own squishy masses of fan; sometimes, rarely, they break off, forming the cores of new beasts, drawing their own paradoxical factions of fans. That is how the beast reproduces; mostly, though, it just grows, feeding on the source work, drawing new fans into itself with reviews and memes and recommendations by slightly pushy friends.

But then the beast gets old, and something strange happens: the core cracks. Grit gets inside the pearl. The inmates start running the asylum.

This is where things can get weird, when the flow from work to fan ceases to be unidirectional.
Which brings us to December 24, 2010. Christmas Eve. As per tradition, tomorrow will be a new Doctor Who special, “The Christmas Carol” to be specific, Matt Smith’s first. Over on American and Canadian televisions, however, the Doctor is showing up in an entirely different, and probably accidental, form.

We have, you see, two beasts to consider, and two shows at their core. They have more in common than it seems on the surface, Doctor Who and My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Both are revivals of shows from decades prior. Both were originally educational shows for children, but abandoned that calling early in their runs. Both intentionally build in something “for the dads.” Perhaps most importantly, both reject the ethos of cynicism and violence.

And both are cases of the inmates running the asylum. Lauren Faust, the first showrunner of Friendship Is Magic, played with My Little Pony toys as a child. There still exists a drawing she made in her teens which is recognizably one of the characters she would eventually create, Rainbow Dash—her equivalent, perhaps, to Moffat’s Usenet post about us getting the word “doctor” from the Doctor rather than the other way around. 

Unsurprisingly, therefore, both like to tweak their fans with little references, meaningless to the primary audience of children, but perhaps entertaining and recognizable for the older viewers. The major difference here is the source of those references: for Doctor Who, with its enormous length and emboitment of all television, they point inwards; for Friendship Is Magic, outwards. So in Doctor Who under Moffat we get offhand references to Metebelis 3 and the Brigadier’s daughter running UNIT, while in Friendship Is Magic we get brief glimpses of background characters who look like the cast of The Big Lebowski or an episode that presents the problems of Star Trek’s “The Trouble with Tribbles” and solves them with “The Pied Piper of Hamelin.”

So in Doctor Who we have one show that amorphously reaches out and drags other television into itself, absorbing and emboiting it. In Friendship Is Magic we have another show that likes to reach out and point at other television.

Inevitably, therefore, their collision occurred entirely by accident and in the imagination of fans.

It’s December 24, 2010. Tomorrow, Doctor Who’s latest annual Christmas special, “A Christmas Carol,” airs. Today is another weekly episode of Friendship Is Magic’s first season, “Winter Wrap-Up.” The plot of the episode is not particularly relevant to us; what does matter is that there is a musical number featuring a large crowd singing, and at the 3:32 mark a particular background pony is shown more clearly than at any previous point in the show.

His appearance is almost certainly a coincidence. The primary tool used to make the show, Adobe Flash, permits a relatively easy way to generate large numbers of background characters by building a small library of “puppets” with pre-set animations, then duplicating them and adding on different coloration, hair, and so on. This early in the show’s run, the library of additions for the background characters is fairly small; in particular, “cutie marks,”—in the show’s mythology, symbols on a pony’s flanks that indicate their occupation or calling—repeat quite often. One of the most common is an hourglass.

So, almost certainly by chance, one of the background ponies—one who has been around since the first episode, actually—is a similar shade of brown to the Tenth Doctor’s coat, has slightly mussed dark hair similar to David Tennant’s, and an hourglass cutie mark. This episode was the first time he was shown prominently enough to be easily spotted without actively looking for him, and so this appears to have been the first time fans noticed and talked about him. Within days, fans had created Doctor Whooves, Last Survivor of Gallopfrey.

The usual fanworks followed. Drawings and Photoshopped pictures first, then stories. “Time Lords and Terror” was a particularly influential one; novella-length, it followed the Tenth Doctor as he accidentally slipped between universes, turned into a pony due to “morphic field resonance,” and took on the show’s main characters as companions. The adventure in that one took a typical Doctor Who approach to absorbing other stories, bringing back the villains of 1986’s My Little Pony: The Movie, a trio of witches and an all-devouring goop called the Smooze, as Carrionites in the service of the primordial, Void-dwelling, life-and-matter-hating Lovecraftian entity S’müz.

Other fanworks followed. There are fanmade animations, mashups of the Friendship Is Magic theme with the Doctor Who theme, even two entirely independent (other than one crossover) fanmade audio drama series, Doctor Whooves and Assistant and Doctor Whooves Adventures. Some are reasonably good as fanworks go, such as the aforementioned “Time Lords and Terror”; others rather less so (the audio drama crossover has little to no multi-doctor banter and spends much too much time on characters expositing to one another about things the audience already knows). Doctor Whooves and Assistant manages to be interesting fairly consistently, with its serial structure and interesting take on the pseudo-historical: since the history of Friendship Is Magic’s setting, Equestria, is largely unknown, the nearest equivalent, in the sense of being a narrative already familiar to the audience which can be carnivalized by the addition of Doctor Who elements, is aired episodes of Friendship Is Magic itself. Thus we get stories such as the Doctor running around in the background of “Winter Wrap-Up” trying to stop an invasion by alien snow-beasts. There’s also a degree of synergy between elements of the two source texts; while some Doctor Who fans objected to the “power of love” ending to “Closing Time,” dealing with Cyber-Ponies the same way in Doctor Whooves and Assistant makes complete sense, as Friendship Is Magic already established emotions as a source of magical energy.

While the level of creative output surrounding Doctor Whooves is, perhaps, unusually high, that it exists is not particularly odd. Fans do strange things, and one of those things is latching onto minor characters and building stories around them. This is neither the first nor last instance of such happening with Friendship Is Magic—indeed, an animation error from the first episode resulted in a walleyed pegasus, dubbed Derpy Hooves by the fans, who dwarfs Doctor Whooves in popularity and serves as the other title character in Doctor Whooves and Assistant.

She is actually where this does become unusual, because that first-episode animation error was corrected in subsequent episodes where that particular pegasus appeared—and then, after the online popularity of Derpy Hooves soared, the “error” began being intentionally reproduced in later episodes, leading up to an eventual speaking role.

Anthropologist Henry Jenkins has written at length about the ways in which fans repurpose elements of their fandoms’ source texts for use in their own lives, rituals, and creative works. In this sense, though he does not use the analogy, they are much like the Melanesian cargo cults. In the popular understanding, cargo cults imitate Western practices in the hopes of receiving the benefits of Western society; the classic image is of islanders, having seen World War II soldiers receive supplies by air, building a bamboo landing strip in the false hope that this will magically bring back the goods-laden airplanes. This image is quite wrong; cargo cults achieve their actual functions quite well, namely the creation and restoration of social relationships in communities threatened by the pressures of encroaching Western cultures. Similarly, the function of fan activity and fanworks is not (or not merely) to create imitations of the source texts; it is to create, maintain, and renew relationships within a fan community. That fans frequently fail to successfully replicate the properties that make the source text attractive to them in the first place is, to an extent, beside the point.

In his Convergence Culture, Jenkins comments on the way in which the Internet and related technology accelerates this process, enabling near-instant fan feedback and thereby permitting a bottom-up response to the traditional top-down flow of media. It is increasingly the norm for any reasonably popular work to accrue its own equivalent to anoraks, an amorphous, communal creature of forum discussions, blogs, fanart and fanfiction. Increasingly, “geek” culture and pop culture are converging, and in the process creating a convergence of the top-down commercial culture with a bottom-up folk culture. 

And of course, readers of this blog know by now what happens when the top-down meets the bottom-up. At the point of convergence, alchemy occurs. Like the cargo cultists or the alchemists of old, fans below play with the pieces of a work, manipulating them, fermenting and dissolving and recombining them. And the ongoing source texts above, increasingly, respond. As below, so above.
About a year after the fandom first latched onto Doctor Whooves, in the second-season episode “Sweet and Elite” several new background ponies appeared, based on the Third, Fifth, and Eleventh Doctors. What had been accidental was now deliberate. By the fourth season, he has appeared on official merchandise as “Time Turner” or “Dr. Hooves” (the name changes are most likely to forestall potential lawsuits from the BBC), and frequently shows up in the backgrounds of various episodes, often accompanied by the previously established background character Rose. 
Most blatantly, he appears in the fourth season episode “It Ain’t Easy Being Breezies,” during a sequence involving passing through a rapidly closing portal between worlds, wearing 3D glasses and accompanied by Rose. At this point it is no longer deniable that he is as much a walking Doctor Who reference within the show as in fanworks.

There is danger here, as there is with any magic. This kind of direct contact, in which fan preferences directly and immediately influence the source text, does not have a great history where Doctor Who is concerned. Excessive fan involvement in the production of the show contributed heavily to declining quality and eventual cancelation in the 1980s. Doctor Whooves’ presence as a minor background gag is amusing; an entire episode devoted to him would be worrisome. The problem with letting the inmates run the asylum is that most inmates aren’t doctors.

But for now, that alchemy has produced the Doctor as a pony, and he in turn has led to the S’müz, cyber-ponies, and reams of fanart, as well as the occasional shout-out in the show. It does not, so far, appear to have caused the collapse and cancelation of either Doctor Who or Friendship Is Magic. So long as those shows remain under the control of skilled creators who know how far to let fan influence in and when to cut it off, this will hopefully continue to remain the case.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Outside the Government 19: Doctor Who Confidential Redux

It is strange in some ways to realize that Doctor Who Confidential has been going on this whole time. It’s not, after all, like anybody watched it. I mean, a few people did, but it was only ever available in the UK, and, well, how to put this nicely… it’s not like it was ever very good. It was fun enough in its first year when it was only a half-hour long and focused as much on the series’ history as on the making of the new series, but the decision to expand it to a forty-five minute format just as they were properly running out of nostalgia trips was, to say the least, puzzling. Instead Doctor Who Confidential became a sort of generic making of show.

But even given that, there are some problems. The making of Doctor Who is indeed interesting, but it’s not necessarily ten-and-a-half hours of interesting for every single year of production. There are only so many times poor Danny Hargreaves can demonstrate styrofoam debris and air cannons while maintaining any sort of semblance of keeping things fresh, and only so many compelling scenes that can be wrung out of Ailsa Berk teaching people in monster costumes how to do the correct funny walk for this week’s episode. As a result, by the end Doctor Who Confidential had become a sort of hodgepodge of strange things, such as the mildly infamous “Karen Gillian drives a car episode,” in which a significant amount of the episode was turned over to, well, Karen Gillian driving a car. But equally, it’s why there exists a montage of the women playing the Weeping Angels dancing to Lady Gaga, which is self-evidently a thing that should exist. (And to their credit, they did montages for both “Bad Romance” and “Poker Face,” which is good, as picking which song would make the better choice is nearly impossible.)

But let’s pull back the lens a little and look at what Doctor Who Confidential is, or at least, was. First and foremost it was a program on BBC Three, a channel that exists specifically to pull a “younger” audience. It’s going slightly too far to say that Confidential was a children’s program, but it was, with its ostentatious use of pop music and position on BBC Three, clearly meant as a program for teenage fans of the series. In this regard, it fits into a long tradition of Doctor Who being a program with a very, very well-documented production. There’s a generation of people working on Doctor Who who point to the Terrance Dicks/Malcolm Hulke book The Making of Doctor Who as a huge and seminal influence on their being interested in television. Hell, Peter Capaldi became interested in television in part because of things like Barry Letts responding to fan letters by sending him scripts and his interview with Bernard Lodge for a fanzine. So it seems almost certain that there will be another generation who learned how television was made and became fascinated with it because they saw Doctor Who getting made every week on Confidential. I feel like you can basically end the argument there, honestly. “It inspired a generation of people to make art.” I mean, I’m not sure Doctor Who itself can be defended quite that succinctly and effectively. 

But at the end of the 2011 series, Doctor Who Confidential was cancelled. In some ways, this is understandable - as suggested, the series had become, to say the least, a bit tired, and had probably taught what it had to teach about how television was made. In others, however, it’s somewhat silly. Doctor Who Confidential was, to be frank, a cheap program to make, consisting of a camera crew documenting production and a day’s voice recording for a B-list celebrity to provide the narration. Given the need to have behind the scenes features for the DVDs anyway, Confidential was the closest thing to a free hour of television programming as existed in the world, which is probably why there’ve been quasi-versions of it for both Season Seven and Season Eight. 

But its disappearance fits into a larger and significant narrative within Doctor Who over the Moffat era, which is a new sort of continual crisis. Admittedly, within fandom Doctor Who has been on the brink of cancellation more or less every second since Rose started transmission, before which it was not on the brink of cancellation but rather doomed to failure from the start. And to be fair, it’s easy in hindsight to understate just how tricky the Davies to Moffat transition was, and how easily it could have gone completely wrong. Which is to say, being concerned that the show might not survive the Moffat era did, at least for a little while, make sense. Especially when the ratings sagged rather dramatically at the end of Season Five, an incident that, while not clear evidence of a problem, was genuinely worrisome. So the cancellation of Confidential felt at the time like a part of that - yet another disaster being heaped upon the program.

Let’s, then, try to untangle this, at least a little bit. I should note that this is, by its nature, history written very close to the time. It’s also not something I’ve spent hours meticulously sourcing. There are already and will someday be more excellent primary sources on the making of Doctor Who that will, no doubt, complicate and expand on this account. Nevertheless, this is an attempt to piece through the narrative of the Moffat era as it played out in public and to make some sense of it, based largely on the perceptions of someone who’s made a point of following the story for the past few years as though he expected to have to write about it someday.

Let’s start with Confidential, as that’s the nominal topic of this post and the simplest to explain, since it fits squarely into a larger narrative, which is that the BBC has, over the last few years, toggled back into its “on the defensive” position and away from the “ambitious and beloved cultural institution” position it enjoyed over the course of New Labour, and which was heavily responsible for Doctor Who coming back in the first place. Under the coalition, the BBC faced a license fee freeze and a lack of governmental support. And it hasn’t exactly helped itself with things like Jimmy Saville. And that’s just public perception, and not the real and material problem of massive budget problems. So the axing of Confidential is probably best read in terms of the fact that, less than two years later, the BBC announced the axing of BBC Three as a whole. Given this, Occam’s Razor does rather suggest that the easiest explanation for Confidential’s demise is simply the collapse of the media ecosystem in which it existed. 

A second aspect of this comes up in the overall shape of the BBC. On the one hand, Doctor Who is borderline essential to the BBC because it is one of a handful of programs that brings in far more money than it costs. On the other hand, there’s a public perception that comes up periodically that accuses the BBC of favoring “trash” like Doctor Who instead of worthy and important dramas. This is, of course, a complete load of horseshit, but the BBC being the BBC means that it’s quick to cover its ass regardless of whether there’s an actual problem. So when there’s a round of budget cuts, Doctor Who has to get hit somewhere, because otherwise the BBC is showing favoritism and spending money on Doctor Who that could be spent on some four episode costume drama about the Earl of Balfour or something. So Doctor Who Confidential had to go for the same reason that Day of the Doctor had to be funded by removing an episode from Season Eight and Season Nine: to make sure Doctor Who was publicly seen to be sacrificed for other priorities.

But unfortunately, this coincided with a period of behind the scenes turmoil that, in hindsight, was only to be expected when the television power couple of Russell T Davies and Julie Gardner broke up, which fed into the paranoid fandom view of Doctor Who being on the brink of disaster perpetually. The first major incident in this was the report in Private Eye in the immediate aftermath of A Good Man Goes to War that suggested that 2012 was going to be another year of specials in the vein of 2009, and suggesting behind the scenes drama involving co-executive producers Piers Wenger and Beth Willis. 

As with most things in Private Eye, there’s a clear connection to the truth here. Indeed, there was a gap around Season Seven that had the practical effect of there not being as many new episodes of Doctor Who in either 2012 or 2013 as there had been in 2010 or 2011, a fact we’ll discuss in a moment. And both Wenger and Willis departed the show after Season Six. One can infer some deeper BBC politics involved - it’s notable that Wenger was put in as a more or less explicit replacement for Julie Gardner, performing the same double duty of executive producing shows and working as Head of Drama for BBC Wales. When Wenger moved on from the BBC, his replacement as Head of Drama at BBC Wales, Faith Penhale, did not perform this outsized role except for the special circumstances of Day of the Doctor, another issue we’ll discuss shortly. So there were clearly larger political forces in play involving drama production at BBC Wales. Regardless, it’s worth noting that Moffat publicly stood by his co-executive producers, blasting the Private Eye article and making clear that he had enjoyed working with them. And it is true that production got stressfully tight at the end of Season Six, hence some of the wobbliness in both Let’s Kill Hitler and The Wedding of River Song.

More bluntly, it’s worth looking at the particulars of Private Eye and these leaks. The BBC is, after all, a large organization. Large enough that it’s impossible that there are not embittered employees with axes to grind who would be more than happy to gab on background to a magazine like Private Eye with the knowledge that it will cause headaches for whoever they’re pissed at. Put another way, if you make the assumption that there’s backbiting and drama going on behind the scenes at the BBC, you’re correct, and have been since 1922. But Doctor Who is a supremely easy target for that sort of drama precisely because it’s a tremendously popular and will thus get column inches, and, perhaps more importantly, because it has a bunch of paranoid lunatics as fans.

Because the truth is that the ugly morass of Doctor Who fandom skewered so perfectly in Love and Monsters is and always has still been around. There are gobs of people who once had a much bigger role in Doctor Who than they do now that people give a shit about the show, but who still have a few insider sources and are perfectly willing to mouth off in semi-private and spread rumors with little consideration for where they’re coming from. To give real and concrete examples of where gossip in Doctor Who comes from, it turned out recently that one of the major sources of rumors about the theorized massive haul of missing episodes that The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear may or may not be the beginning of was Adrian Rigelsford, the scam artist best known in Doctor Who for somehow convincing people that his pitched 30th Anniversary story The Dark Dimension was ever plausibly going to get made, and best known everywhere else for fabricating an interview with Stanley Kubrick and going to jail for stealing photos from the Daily Mail. And back in 2011, it turned out that one of the people spreading an anonymous letter from someone working on Doctor Who about how horribly it was all going behind the scenes was Ian Levine. Given this, it’s hardly a surprise that people put two and two together and got 1985. 

If nothing else, though, we now have enough years of hindsight to recognize that the world was not actually ending in 2011, and that while there clearly was behind the scenes drama at the BBC, it wasn’t anything too out of the ordinary. Except for the matter of the delayed production. It is here I must become relatively emphatic, because this has been a fairly reliably source of criticism of the series, and it is, quite frankly, appalling. First of all, let’s consider the basic production schedule as it existed for the first four seasons of Doctor Who, and as it was recreated for the first two Moffat seasons. Fourteen episodes a year is a lot for an hour-long British drama. It’s especially a lot for one with as many special effects requirements as Doctor Who. One need only look at The Writer’s Tale to see just how brutal a schedule it was, and to realize that it was only possible because Russell T Davies is not actually a human being but a nicotine golem with a propensity for writing. And it nearly killed him. That Moffat could not keep the schedule of writing six Doctor Whos a year, producing another eight, and then running an entire second show with a ninety minute script for him to write and that seems to have demanded more of his focus than either Torchwood or Sarah Jane Adventures ever did of Davies is, quite simply, not unreasonable, and anyone who considers it grounds to criticize Moffat for not working hard enough should shut the fuck up unless they have experience doing multiple pieces of creative work to multiple immensely pressing deadlines, and even if they do, they should probably recognize that there are some unique and added complexities when that creative work involves a massive production team and dealing with the aforementioned BBC politics. Even if Moffat were capable of the brutal work schedule that Davies kept up for four years, demanding that the price of executive producing Doctor Who is that you don’t get to see your kids ever is the sort of thing that explains why Doctor Who fandom is full of backbiting gossips for whom nothing is more important than their egomania.

(And if you’re about to make some sort of point about how he should have dropped Sherlock if the workload was too high, please just stop. Or go to GallifreyBase. You’ll fit right in.)

Which is to say, yes, of course the BBC, when faced with the in-no-way-a-problem of having two massive hit shows that share an executive producer, were happy to figure out how to schedule said shows such that their golden goose didn’t drop dead of a heart attack or, worse, move to ITV. 

Equally, it does appear to be the case that production on Season Seven was… fraught. The main piece of gossip was once again revealed by Private Eye in the lead-up to the 50th, when the new co-executive producer, Caroline Skinner, abruptly resigned following reports of a screaming match that included Steven Moffat shouting that “you are erased from Doctor Who.” This may well be true, although one suspects that the choice of quotes is based more on the slight ridiculousness of the line than on its nuanced and careful representation of the conflict. One ought not judge a shouting match from one out of context quote in Private Eye. Equally, however, there is not what you would call the sense that Moffat and Skinner ever got along particularly well. The degree to which this is a particularly significant thing is roughly nil - people don’t get along all the time, and about the worst you can say that any friction between Moffat and Skinner caused was a slightly sub-par season of Doctor Who. It’s not particularly interesting unless you’re fascinated with the minutiae of Doctor Who production, which, admittedly, we basically all are here. 

For what it’s worth, things appear much happier behind the scenes right now. But, of course, that’s all stuff we’re not covering on TARDIS Eruditorum. So for now it’s worth simply noting that the next stretch of Doctor Who was not made under particularly happy circumstances, with rumors dogging the program, stress levels at a high, and a somewhat unpleasant behind the scenes environment. None of this is new for the series, and it’s not even as though harmonious behind the scenes environments are necessary for the series to be good and classic. Just ask the Hartnell era, which was made under phenomenally grueling conditions. All the same, the public narrative of Doctor Who’s production is part of what Doctor Who is, and that this was a cloud that hung over all of the remaining seventeen episodes of the Matt Smith era - one whose most visible and easily identifiable feature was the sense of lost status that came in Doctor Who Confidential being viewed as no longer worth producing.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Deep Breath Review

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If anyone cares, the number one single is Nico and Vinz's "Am I Wrong."

Let's work from Cardiff, shall we? It's a late summer day, with the temperature peaking at 16 degrees, and not really moving far off of that. The episode starts at 7:50, a carefully chosen timeslot that sits ten minutes before even the earliest of childrens' bedtimes, making it nearly impossible to keep them from watching. Twenty-nine minutes in, just as the Doctor is realizing that he's Scottish and the story finally starts to bother with the plot, the sun sets. (In London, it's twelve minutes earlier, just as Clara is seeing through Vastara's veil and the Doctor is climbing up on the rooftops.) Fifteen minutes from the end, as the Doctor asks the cyborg what he thinks of the view, civil twilight gives way to nautical twilight. (In London, it's right as Clara passes out because she can't hold her breath anymore.) US transmission skews later - I'm typing this bit half an hour before transmission, right as the sun is going down, so it'll start in civil twilight and continue through to the nighttime proper.

This feels like something that the series, under Moffat, has been working towards and never quite getting. Moffat has been complaining about the problematic relationship between barbecue forks and Doctor Who ever since the end of Season Five, and now, finally, he gets a run of episodes that starts in the dying days of summer and will run right through the height of autumn, before coming back for one last flourish for the solstice. And the first one transmits right across the sunset, starting right in the golden hour. The orange glow of the late day and the coming autumn permeates the episode. So this is our mission statement: a crepuscular series.

The early returns seem largely positive. A fair number of people seem unimpressed with anything that isn't Peter Capaldi, though virtually everyone is at least on the same page about him, it seems. GallifreyBase's episode poll is around 72% rating it as an 8-10, with only six people proclaiming that they'd rather listen to a tape loop of leaf blower noise, which is pretty good, but it's worth noting that of that 72%, 31.87% are picking 8/10. So well-liked but not an insta-classic, apparently.

Which seems fitting. This is an episode with a lot to do. A premiere of a new Doctor is as much about showing the potential of the rest of the season as it is about being brilliant in its own right. Ultimately, more important than whether people absolutely adore Deep Breath is whether they stick around for Into the Dalek. And clearly, this is something the production team is mindful of, as they decided to just drop the inevitable Dalek story into the second slot to try to offer as big an opening one-two punch as they could possibly manage.

What strikes me as interesting about the climate, then, is how easy the actual introduction of the Doctor is. I forget where Moffat pointed out the difference between this and The Eleventh Hour, but he noted that The Eleventh Hour had a supremely awkward and difficult situation in that absolutely everybody involved with the show, from the producers down to the cast, had just quit at the same time, and that shows aren't supposed to have next episodes after that. Whereas with Deep Breath the only changes are the lead actor and Moffat's co-executive producer, the latter having been something of an ongoing saga for the era.

On top of that, there's the near total consensus that casting Capaldi was a brilliant move. Even those of us who were most in favor of a Doctor who wasn't another white dude were at least partially silenced by the announcement, simply because it was one you actually could defend firmly and entirely on the merits. Much as we may have wanted Chiwetel Ejiofor, or Helen Mirren, the truth is that there are very few, if any people where you can say "Peter Capaldi or X" and have X be a clear cut better choice. I mean, we're talking about a man who stole the 50th with his eyebrows. Which meant that Deep Breath's mandate, going in, was basically "don't fuck it up."

This explains almost everything about it. Certainly it explains the way in which the plot goes on holiday for the first half hour in favor of giving Capaldi a succession of set pieces in which he gets to do standard bits of Doctor Who. A pre-credits comedy bit about post-regeneration trauma, a "let's be a bit barmy" with not understanding a bedroom, some sneaking about in the night, talking to a dinosaur, being furiously angry, and finally back to another comedy scene in which he gets his act together. There is no effort made to withhold pleasure here - the episode serves up thirty solid minutes of Capaldi leavened only by fan favorite characters, generally being funny as well.

It would risk grating if not for the fact that everybody is, in fact, very good at their jobs. Jenna Coleman and the Paternoster Gang can run on autopilot if they have to. And they don't, with the veil scene being quietly and subtly used to revamp Clara's character a bit, now that she has room to breathe away from the weight of her big mystery arc, and giving both Coleman and McIntosh some lovely material.

And then there's Capaldi, who spends the first half hour finding slightly unexpected ways to play everything. Part of this is an immediate bid to shape expectations. The emphasis on Twelve being a potentially "darker" Doctor has been fairly immense, and so most of his early scenes are played for laughs, both as scripted and as performed. The prickliness is presented as jokes - "you've really let yourself go," for instance. Even his first big anger scene, over the burning corpse of a dinosaur, is a buildup to a joke. ("Have there been any similar murders?") Capaldi, for his part, isn't so much figuring out his Doctor as he goes as he is taking advantage of the inchoate nature of the character in these scenes to map out the sorts of things he can do.

Notably, for all that this is consciously structured like Robot, with the remnants of the Smith era still visible everywhere (note the conscious decision not to revamp the sonic, and to use the same basic console room set), Capaldi does not play the part like Baker (and Pertwee before him, and Troughton before him still) did, starting with his predecessor's performance and discarding bits he doesn't like. Sure, there's still the broad physical comedy that Smith made his own, but not in the sense of the Doctor as this buzzing, ever moving figure. Capaldi is aided in this by Ben Wheatley's superb direction, and his willingness to work in long medium shots that let Capaldi do a whole body performance that seems to draw more on Peter Cushing than anyone else. Smith's physicality filled the screen, Capaldi's traverses it. And Wheatley gets this intuitively and quickly, centering the camera on Capaldi as he whirls through space. Which is, in its way, all a buildup to Capaldi's final scene, where Capaldi finally does get contrasted with Smith, and Capaldi gets an extraordinary amount of mileage out of simply standing still, and letting Wheatley's camera hang in space as he begs Clara to see him.

Between these two poles, meanwhile, we get an episode that is not so much standard issue as it is minimalist. It's become something of a convention to give a new Doctor something of a low-rent problem to solve in his first outing, and the stripped down reprise of The Girl in the Fireplace certainly does the trick. The point of this structure is to change the sort of question we ask about the plot, so that we're asking about the actor's performance instead of the plot resolution. It's not "how will the Doctor solve this," but "what will the Doctor solving this look like?"

It's here that we finally get a moment of proper surprise from Capaldi, when he seems to abandon Clara to get captured, a decision that turns out to be an elaborate feint that serves, in the final analysis, as a rejection of the idea that Capaldi's Doctor might be terribly dangerous. The result is that Clara gets a superlative scene in which she resists the cyborg's interrogation and turns it back on him - one in which she's presented with beautiful nuance, most notably as she combines crying from fear with ruthless effectiveness in finding out what she needs to know in a way that suddenly finds entire acres of new space for the idea of strength within the general territory of the Doctor Who companion. This is in many ways the central magic trick of Deep Breath - it rests on its laurels in terms of Capaldi, being cooly confident that it's going to stick the landing there, and instead focuses on covertly regenerating Clara without changing the actress, a move that makes charming sense given the way in which the character was introduced.

And then, of course, there's the big confrontation scene, positioned just as dusk hits, in which Capaldi finally gets to do the scene that expectations have pointed towards, in which he's cold and dangerous. The opening, offering the cyborg a drink because he has a "horrible feeling" that he's going to have to kill him, is majestic, and prefigures the stillness of Capaldi's final scene. As with all of Capaldi's performance, it's magnificent - everyone knew Capaldi would be good at this sort of thing. But put at this point in the episode, it has a subtler effect. An hour of seeing Capaldi being funny and then seeing the balloon of his supposed "darkness" punctured a bit with the not-actually-abandoning of Clara has its effect, and the result is that Capaldi gets framed as he should be: as a basically silly old man who can turn terrifying, as opposed to as a terrifying force of nature who occasionally smiles.

So, job done. Capaldi is established in the course of an effective story that has laughs and thrills at the right intervals and that knows what it's doing. The show you know and love, or at least that you knew and loved nine months ago when it was busy being the single biggest thing on television again, is back, with everything you loved, but enough changes to keep it interesting. Normal service has been restored. Welcome back.

Some closing thoughts.

  • Lots of soft referencing the Cybermen, in their original Tenth Planet sense of wandering cyborgs seeking some sort of enlightenment, and the repeated use of the phrase "spare parts." 
  • There's hundreds of words to write about mirrors, and I trust jane will do so in the comments. Veils too, I'm sure. 
  • There's an interesting relationship between the series and its past here, whereby it's on the one hand positioned as the heir to its fifty year history and on the other breaks from it, with the Doctor consciously not getting his own continuity reference. (A joke that is, it should be noted, nicked from the original of Gareth Roberts's The Lodger, where the villain was going to be Meglos, a revelation the Doctor would respond to by not remembering him at all.) 
  • Seems like the leading theory on Missy is a female Master. If so, I'm sure the "stfu-moffat" crowd will, of course, give suitable credit to Moffat for essentially rendering a female Doctor inevitable.
  • On a similar note, I really do want to highlight the brilliance of that Clara/cyborg scene, which accomplishes "strong female character" with none of the cliches of that phrase, with the strength instead being utterly human and real.
  • Should I do a letter grade?
  • Nah.